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My perspectives as an investor and consumer

Redefining the paradox of thrift

cycleschange41There is a story in The Scriptures about a man named Joseph, who had the gift of interpreting dreams.  One unfortunate event after another led him to the king’s prison where he had served for two years.  One night, Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, had two dreams both of which troubled him inordinately.  In one dream, seven healthy cows, standing by the river Nile, were devoured by seven sickly ones, which were none the better for it.  In the other dream, seven plump ears of grain were consumed by seven thin and blighted ones.

Of all the wise men in Pharaoh’s court, Joseph turned out to be the only one who could interpret the dreams.  He explained that both dreams referred to the same thing – two consecutive time periods, each seven years in duration.  The first seven years would be ones of plenty but they would be followed by seven years of hunger and famine.

Not only did Joseph have an interpretation, he also had a plan to address the inevitable downturn.  For the first seven years, the time of abundance, the Pharaoh was to collect 20% of the harvest throughout the land of Egypt and save them in storehouses.  These “savings” would be used to feed not just the people of Egypt, but also of neighboring lands who were going to be affected by the dearth during the subsequent seven years.

As the story goes, Joseph’s interpretation of the dream was accurate and the implementation of his strategy positioned Egypt to not only survive the famine but to provide for her neighbors.

I am reminded of this story every time I hear the phrase, “the paradox of thrift” in the media.  Paradox of thrift is also referred to as the “paradox of saving” and was presented by the economist, John Maynard Keynes.  According to this paradox, if everyone saves more during times of recession, then aggregate demand will fall resulting in reduced savings by the population as a whole because of decreased consumption and economic growth.

Here is an example of the paradox in microcosm.  When you save more now than you did last year (as a percentage of your income), you do so by reducing spending because the chances of one’s income rising in a recession are low.  One of the ways you reduce spending may involve cutting expenditure on dining out.  As a result, your local restaurant feels the pinch.  It responds to the altered environment by cutting pay for its employees, reducing work hours or laying some of them off.  Regardless of the nature of the restaurant’s response, the employees’ incomes are reduced.  They, in turn, spend less.  When taken in aggregate, this could lower economic growth as represented by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), because 70% of GDP is based on consumer spending.

Economists of the Keynesian vein believe that spending needs to come from somewhere to stimulate the economy during a recession.  If the consumer has decided to clamp down on spending, it’s the government’s responsibility to pick up the slack.  Herein lies the impetus for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

I don’t dismiss the paradox outright as do economists that follow the Nobel Laureate, Milton Friedman.  However, the context seems to be turned on its head.  There are certain principles in the story that I recounted earlier that seem to have been abrogated by our society:

  • Always remembering that nothing continues in perpetuity i.e., there is a cycle or season to everything.
  • Times of recession follow periods of growth and vice versa.
  • Preparing for famine needs to be a part of living in abundance.
  • If you have prepared during good times, then you will be in a position to support your community during tough times.
  • If you are in a position to help others during the community’s or nation’s dearth, then you ought to do so.

To me, this is how the paradox should be played out during a recession.  The key is for us to act from a position of strength, not weakness.  A strong position would mean low or no debt and cash reserves sufficient not merely for ourselves but also to support others.  Unfortunately, most of us find ourselves in the contrasting position – that of minimal cash reserves and a mountain of debt.  Opportunities for investment, career advancement or change, societal impact, etc., are all presenting themselves, yet we feel impotent.

However, our story need not end there.  That is the beauty of cycles.  When one passes, another one arises.  What is required of us is a reaffirmation of the principles we once abrogated – to build towards a position of strength and then, operate from that position.

If you are operating from a position of weakness, don’t allow economists to guilt-trip you into spending under the guise of saving the rest of the population.  You can’t help anyone when you are withering.  If, however, you find yourself in a strong position these days, then use this opportunity to impact your community whether it be through investments, doing business with local establishments, or supporting your favorite charities.  Those of us who are not in your position will be inspired by you and aspire to join you in these efforts during the next cycle.

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